My old pickup didn’t have an air conditioner. The windows were open as we drove down 917 East to Mansfield. A homemade tape of Chris Ledoux was playing:
“Well, there ain’t no easy going on the rodeo trail; for every man that’s made it, a hundred men have failed…”
“I guess two hundred men are going to fail,” Travis said with a smile.
“Yeah, I guess,” I answered. Driving through the country in the summer made me too lazy to talk.
We drove across the black land prairie that was once covered in tall grasses and grazing buffalo. Now it was plowed or planted to improved grass. Freshly bailed squares of hay lay in fields. Horses grazed in small pastures along with a few crossbred cows. Still, in some pastures, big bluestem, little bluestem, and other native grasses stood as reminders of what the land must have looked like to the first settlers. I tried to imagine the rolling grass-covered hills without the barbed wire, power lines, and trailer houses.
“Hey, did you know that Jeremiah Berry got killed?” Travis asked.
That got my attention. “No. How?”
“Somebody shot him in Mansfield. I think it was a drive-by.
“I thought he lived in East Texas—Waxahachie or somewhere,” I said. Waxahachie is only 22 miles southeast of Mansfield, but to me it was East Texas because it was on I-35 East. Being between I-35 East and I-35 West, Mansfield was Central Texas.
“I don’t know,” Travis said. “All I know is that he’s dead. There’s going to be a benefit bull riding for his family next week.”
Jeremiah had started riding at Kowbell a few months earlier, but he had been riding bulls for a long time before that in the Lone Star High School Rodeo Association. He was winning the Sunday night buckle series at Mansfield. We didn’t like that since he was the newcomer.
Besides his beating us, we thought he was goofy. He wore homemade chaps and shirts. Sometimes he smoked a pipe, or at least he pretended to. And when he finished a good ride, he took his hat off and fanned it like Lane Frost did in the movie Eight Seconds. It burned us up when he did that.
We never gave Jeremiah a chance. We never tried to make friends with him. We never helped him when he was getting ready to ride. We never congratulated him when he beat us. If I could, I would sure treat him differently, I thought, but it’s too late. I felt sick. “Why weren’t we nicer to him?” I asked.
Travis didn’t answer.
“I’m going to win that buckle series and give the buckle to his parents.” Though I wasn’t even in the top five in the standings, it was a worthy goal.
“I’ll win the buckle and give it to his parents,” Travis said. We stayed quiet the rest of the way to Kowbell.
Jack was sitting on his stool in the rodeo office when I went in to pay my fees. He glanced across the counter at me and then looked back down. “You here for the barrel racing?” he asked without smiling.
“Yeah,” I said impatiently. “Jack, what happened to Jeremiah Berry?” I asked.
“What do you mean ‘What happened to him?’”
“Well, Travis heard that he got shot.”
“That was another boy. Jeremiah called to enter the bull riding just a few minutes ago. He’ll be here later.”
I had never felt more relieved. When Jeremiah walked in later, I almost hugged him. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you,” I said.
“Thanks, John,” he said with a confused smile. “It’s good to see you, too.”
“Travis heard that you’d been shot and killed. I’m sure glad it wasn’t you,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “me, too.”
The next week, Jeremiah and I went to the benefit bull- riding jackpot together. It’s not often that we wish we would have done things differently, or treated people differently, and then get the chance. But I had the chance.
From then on, Jeremiah and I were friends. I made several trips through Waxahachie to pick him up on our way to little rodeos or jackpots in East Texas, and he helped me become a better bull rider.
At the end of that summer, Jeremiah finished first in the buckle series.
I was happy to see him win it.
For another snazzy picture of Jeremiah in action, see this post.